Notorious/Paul Blart: Mall Cop- Two Large Characters Sidestepping Genre Pitfalls

Two January movies, Notorious and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, could not seem more different on the surface. One is a violent, profane biopic of a gangster rapper, and the other is a PG-rated family film about a hapless fat mall cop stopping some mall robbers. However, their commonality—and what makes them both work— is their ability to fit perfectly within their genres while shedding some of the traps that make most films in the genres fall flat. At the end of the day, both of the movies end up being worth a look, which in the month of January is the last thing one would expect.

Notorious is the story of the life of rapper Chris Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., played by newcomer Jamal Woolard. He has a typical rags-to-riches tale, where he encounters trouble on the streets selling drugs, makes good with his music career, and has trouble with the women in his life while famous. Also key figures in his famous life are Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), and the antagonistic Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). Both Tupac and B.I.G. allegedly died as the result of an East Coast/West Coast gangster rap feud— this film makes no attempt to place blame or to indicate who they think was responsible, but it details the various ways in which the frenzy surrounding the feud could have easily been dissolved.

What I admired most about this film were two pitfalls it avoided. The first one is the “impression” factor that weighs heavily in many biopics, where the actors feel the need to look, talk, and sing so much like the musicians that the resulting performance feels more like an impression than a full-blooded performance (my favorite example of this: Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning impression of Ray). Woodard does bear a resemblance in vocal pattern, appearance, and intonations while rapping to the Notorious B.I.G., but it’s not perfect, and he does not try too hard to make it so. The same goes for Luke as Puffy, who captures his swagger and dance moves without being perfectly similar. The best supporting performance in the film is Naughton as Lil Kim, who struck me as pitch-perfect when it comes to Kim’s balance between hardcore sexuality and hardcore gangster. The second is a biopic’s compulsive need to make the protagonist overtly sympathetic. This film does not shy away from Biggie’s unforgivable behavior— he sells crack to a pregnant woman and when he is reprimanded by a fellow drug dealer, he shrugs it off. He also cheats on his women and steps into conflict rather than avoiding it. The film balances between condemnation and forgiveness beautifully. This biopic is worth checking out not just for rap fans, but anyone interested in how young men become rappers in the first place.

A far less compelling story is how a man becomes a mall cop, yet I was never bored with Paul Blart’s adventures. When the film begins, we see him training to be a state trooper, and he is actually going through the training quite well… until he passes out. Blart is hypoglycemic, so without sugar in his system, he has never finished the training course in five attempts. Still, he is proud of his job as the mall security officer, and hopes to win the heart of the young girl who sells hair extensions (Taryn Manning). When some criminals have a nefarious scheme regarding robbing from the mall, and Paul Blart is the only one left inside, he has the choice to leave behind the hostages—including his desired love interest— or to stay and try to win back his mall against all odds. What choice do you think he makes?

The great thing about this film is that when one thinks of a PG comedy with a fat hero, we immediately think (1) expect a lot of fart, poop, and butt jokes, and (2) expect the hero to be a total loser who doesn’t have the respect of anyone from the get go. For the first point, I’m pleased to announce there is nary a fart, poop, or butt joke to be found. The occasional pratfall is taken, but all jokes are in good fun, and most come from James’ good-natured, ultra-earnest line deliveries. Plus, few can take a pratfall like Kevin James—not since Chris Farley has a man so big seemed so graceful in stunt execution. Secondly, Blart may be hapless, but he is in no way hopeless. In fact, one draws the conclusion from the beginning sequence that if not for his condition, he would have achieved his goal already, and his position as a mall cop is something he takes seriously in the interim. He is an admirable hapless hero, not the typical fat dumb idiot we see on sitcoms. Also, his family respects and loves him—another change from the sitcom nature of fat fathers. This daughter looks up to her father, and wants him to find true love in his life because he deserves it. While the film will win no awards for originality, its abundance of heart and its ability to toe the line between admiration and good-natured fun-poking with its hero make it a great example of genre filmmaking done right. Neither of these two films will win any awards, but I left both of them thinking that if filmmakers within these genres treated their characters with respect and honesty the way Notorious and Paul Blart did, the terms “studio film” and “genre picture” wouldn’t be as taboo as they are today.

Both films:

~ by russellhainline on February 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Notorious/Paul Blart: Mall Cop- Two Large Characters Sidestepping Genre Pitfalls”

  1. […] Supporting Actress: 10. Marley Shelton- (untitled) 9. Naturi Naughton- Notorious 8. Lily Cole- The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 7. Emily Blunt- Sunshine Cleaning 6. Marion […]

  2. Kevin James Acting Is Very Super



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